A balancing act: Managing the work-life structure of an Oxford degree

Image description: An image of Broad Street, Oxford

I always find advice on how to maintain a work-life balance and how to manage your time kind of pointless. How can someone give general advice to a group of people about managing time when the workloads of the students within that group are incredibly diverse and vary from subject to subject and person to person? You may for instance be someone who prefers to work in the evenings or at night, in which case you will have to consider when you can pull all-nighters and when not to. Others may have a lecture at 9 the next morning or a submission deadline late in the day, making staying up all night redundant. You may for instance have very few commitments outside of academic ones or you may be one of these immortal beings who are able to be everyone at once constantly walking across the city to another event they must get to.

All things considered, the best advice I could give and one that relates to my own personal experience is very simple; take History. More specifically take History at Exeter College, for the added benefit of limited contact hours and a friendly group of students who you can share your social life with.

There is a reason after all that you will see libraries seemingly filled with History students reading long, boring books about tariff reform in the mid nineteenth century

To give you an example of the seemingly unlimited freedom you are given as a History student, all of my lectures are online and pre-recorded so there is not obligation to wake up at 7 in the morning in order to rush out for a lecture, and the only other obligation I have are tutorials, around an hour long once a week. Obviously there is some work which needs to be done outside of this.

There is a reason after all that you will see libraries seemingly filled with History students reading long, boring books about tariff reform in the mid nineteenth century. While our lack of contact hours are supplemented by the necessity of reading for what feels like an eternity while you’re doing it, from my experience I have found this to be manageable, and the degree of freedom as to when I choose to read articles has been incredibly liberating.

This freedom and degree of choice that I have experienced has helped me to feel incredibly settled at a rate faster than I expected, contributing to the reason I assume that I have managed to avoid feeling homesick. So far this term I have had the free time to attend all but one of the Union debates and even speak at a couple (if you’re wondering I’m the guy with the German flag shoes who always has his hands in his pockets as a nervous tick), play football for my college second team which has helped me to fulfil my personal exercise quota, visit as many pubs as possible (with my personal favourites so far being Chequers and the Kings Arms), and finally to have the free time to write this article. Being at Exeter has the added benefit of Hall food so I don’t even have to worry about cooking for myself and planning out my meals or anything.

the freedom to give myself a day off from working… has helped me a lot to stay sane and to remain productive

As a state schooler, I was incredibly worried that I was underprepared before I came to Oxford; worried that I would struggle to balance my life effectively because I had never really had to before. Whilst I may have been right if I had been studying a Science (how do you guys do anything besides problem sheets), studying History has instead given me the freedom that I had felt throughout my schooling up until this point. Being someone who greatly suffers when it comes to stress and the fear of failure, the freedom to give myself a day off from working so that I can sit around watching YouTube or reading a book has been something that has helped me a lot to stay sane and to remain productive.

There was one particular thing I had overlooked when I had felt that anxiety before coming to Oxford; I’m a survivor of a pandemic. That’s not to say I have ever actually had Covid and overcome it because I haven’t, but simply that, like most of you, I also had my education significantly impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. Distance learning, often without online lessons or Zoom calls like some of you lucky people got, taught me to be independent with how I manage my time as I stuck roughly to the schedule of lessons that I would otherwise have had. On top of this, I would make sure to finish any extra work that my teachers would set or any work that I had failed to complete in the day later in the evenings. And I did all of this while working a part-time job on the weekends, which would become a full-time job in the summer when I would often work almost 40 hours a week.

Yet despite all this academic and paid work, I still made times to see my friends whenever restrictions permitted it, for instance starting up a 5-a-side football team with my friends and going to parties on the odd occasion. While I said that the best piece of advice is to give up your course and join us History students, the best piece of advice is actually that you probably already have the pre-requisite skills to deal with a work-life balance because you also managed to survive the disruptions to your education wrought by the Pandemic and yet still get into Oxford.

Image credits: Toa Heftiba via Unsplash